Manto casting director Honey Trehan on how he recreated the world of the Urdu writer
Manto casting director Honey Trehan says that the Urdu writer was a product of the people who inhabited his life and also those who inhabited his mind
In an industry obsessed with deifying the star, the spotlight often evades those who work tirelessly behind the scenes. The success of a film is often attributed to its face but seldom to those who constitute the spine. And so, in this column titled Beyond the Stars, Firstpost highlights the contributions of film technicians who bring their expertise to the table.
Nandita Das’ recently released period drama Manto is that rare biopic in which every character stands out, irrespective of the screen time. The people who inhabited Urdu poet Saadat Hassan Manto’s life and those who lived in his mind have been played by a terrific ensemble of actors. Firstpost reached out to the casting director Honey Trehan to discuss how he rounded up the huge, diverse and impressive star cast.
At the premiere of Manto at the Cannes Film Festival, a contingent of over 25 stood on the stage, led by Nandita Das. It was a stunning visual. Why did you and Nandita feel the need to give space to each and every actor or character?
Manto was a product of his people. Had we not shown the world around him minutely, the true personality of Manto would not have come out. As a writer, he observed people and created their clones in his head. That is why for every character that is ever written, I feel like they do exist in real life out there. The character has not come from a void. He was born in this society only and that is why there is always a face identical to that character in society. My job is to find that face.
Which face was the most difficult to find from the lot of Manto?
I remember we were about to go on floors in just a few days. Nandita had given me very short notice to cast all the supporting characters, which were almost 30 to 40. But till the last few days, I could not find Sirajuddin. He is the father of a missing girl called Sakina in Manto’s short story Khol Do. While I could cast Veerendra Saxena or Piyush Pandey as they would have done a good job, but I just did not find Sirajuddin in them. Nandita was flying to Ahmedabad the next night for the Khol Do sequence. A set had been erected for the same scene. Then I called her at night and told her I found Sirajuddin. It was Gurudas Maan. She was like, ‘But Honey, he is a singer. Can he act?’. And I just told her that he does not need to. Two days later, I got a text from Nandita with an unbelievable picture of Gurudas ji as Sirajuddin on the set, with a caption, “For your eyes only.”
What kind of a collaborator was Nandita Das?
She was exactly that, a collaborator. She gave me a lot of creative space in exchange of the short period I had to do the casting in. Both of us are from the Delhi theatre (scene). There, I did a play called an Evening with Manto which had around 40 short stories of Manto weaved into one play. I was assisting Barry John, who was the director. For that play, I had to read Mantonama, a compilation of all his work (more than 400 stories) at the National School of Drama. That is why when Nandita approached me, we had Manto in common. I knew the characters she was talking about.
When you came on board, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Manto had already been cast as Manto and his wife Safia. Did their casting affect how you approached the casting of the people around them?
Not really. For example, when I was casting for Shyam Chadda, who was the alter ego of Manto and was the reason why Manto moved to Lahore from Bombay, I was not looking for a face who would look good with Nawaz. The idea behind casting Tahir Raj Bhasin was that he got the idea behind playing a star like Shyam Chadda, but not mimicking him. His body language of a star was the same in the first half, when he was a struggler, to that in the second half, when he became a huge star. Only the clothes changed. It was important to retain that body language, that personality because that is what made him a star in the first place.
What about other famous faces like Ashok Kumar, Ismat Chugtai, Jaddan Bai and Nargis? How did you cast them? Was it important to not have -- say a Manisha Koirala play Nargis like in Sanju -- because the audience would see her as Manisha, and not Nargis?
I just wanted to cast actors who could make you believe that they are that person. For example, while casting Ashok Kumar, I did not want someone who could mimic him. Bhanu Uday was perfect for that role for he showed only the slight mannerisms that Ashok Kumar would have had when he was not in front of the camera. Those actions would have gotten more visible when he would hit a certain pitch while acting. Similarly, the reason behind casting Rajshree Deshpande as Ismat was not because she is a writer. Rajshree runs an NGO in which she meets hundreds of rural people on a daily basis. All those people are a part of her. And that is why she could bring that empathy and sensitivity that Ismat had. For Jaddan Bai, Nandita and I were brainstorming and thought that Shabana Azmi could play that role. But she had scheduling issues, I was told. So then I cast Ila Arun because she has that old school elegance and that husky voice that Jaddan Bai, who was also a singer, had.
Finally, how did you convince Javed Akhtar to make his acting debut?
Haha! So in the same conversation where Nandita mentioned Shabana Azmi, I bounced the idea (of) why Javed saab can’t be asked to play a very special role. He plays Abid Ali Abid, a very prominent personality of Lahore, who comes to the court to give a statement in favour of Manto when he was facing obscenity charges for Thanda Gosht. Why I saw Javed saab doing that role (was) because it would have been a tribute by a great writer of this century to another great writer of that century. And he readily agreed. In fact, all the actors who came on board to do just half, one or two days of work did the film for free and shared the passion that Nandita had for the project. We’re very grateful to them for they have helped bring the world of Manto to life.
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